Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney (Ryan Caron King / WNPR)
Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney (Ryan Caron King / WNPR) Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton

Two proposals that would force school district regionalization have ignited a storm of protest in some communities, as well as debate at the State Capitol.

At a packed Education Committee meeting Monday, Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said the “distress” she has heard from constituents about possible forced regionalization “has been so great, I’ve never quite seen anything like it.”

“They don’t feel that someone far away should be telling them what to do with their children, or how to shape the institutions in their town,” Lavielle said. “They really feel the school is the soul of their community.”

Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, countered, saying that if “regionalism is what we have to do to make education in the state of Connecticut work, then we need to figure out how to make that work.

“I know that forcing things is not always the right way to go,” Cook continued,  “but sometimes we have to help people get there because they are not going to get there on their own.”

The Education Committee was supposed to be considering a “concept” proposal that would allow schools districts to voluntarily consider ways to regionalize services.

But the conversation at Monday’s meeting instead centered on two bills not formally under consideration. The first, proposed by Sen. President Martin Looney — Senate Bill No. 454 — would force municipalities with populations fewer than 40,000 to consolidate with another district.

The bill calls for the creation of a commission that would be responsible for developing a plan to carry out the regional consolidation of those districts.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney (Ryan Caron King / WNPR)
Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney (Ryan Caron King / WNPR) Ryan Caron King / WNPR

“We really have far too many smaller districts,” Looney, D-New Haven, said late Monday afternoon in an interview. “It’s really not fiscally sustainable. Many are losing students. The time has come to undertake reform or at least get a lively and engaged conversation about promoting regionalization.”

Looney said he’s not talking about consolidating schools, but rather consolidating administrative functions so that “economies of scale” can be reached and overhead reduced. He said there are about 25 municipalities with populations greater than 40,000.

The second proposal — Senate Bill No. 457 — would require any district with a student population of fewer than 2,000 students to join a new or existing regional school district so that the total student population of the expanded district is more than 2,000.  If a district is not joining a regional district, the bill says, it must inform the state Department of Education in writing about why it is not doing so. This bill was proposed by Sen. Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, and Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague.

The forced regionalization proposals drew quick criticism, however, from newly-elected Democrats from the state’s wealthier communities.

Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, Sen. Alex Bergstein, D-Greenwich, and Rep. Lucy Dathan, D-New Canaan, wrote an open letter stating their opposition to Looney’s plan to regionalize education.

“We need to find greater efficiencies to save tax payer dollars and improve the quality” of education,” Haskell said Monday, “but it must be done with the participation and the consent of the municipality.”

He said the state can incentivize regionalization without forcing it upon towns, noting that he has received hundreds of emails and phone calls opposing forced regionalization.

“I think creating mammoth school districts is not the best route,” he said.

Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport.

Haskell said he thinks the better approach would be to reform education cost sharing — the state’s system of funding education — “to make sure students with the highest needs are getting state dollars.”

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said she also has been hearing from many community leaders who are concerned about any effort to force consolidation of school districts.

She said that a bill forcing regionalization “on no other factors except population doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“There are a lot of considerations that tell whether regionalization will work for the community,” she said. “For example, you may have a rural district where regionalization ends up with kids on a bus for more than hour each way — something that is very troublesome for parents and educators and students. One size fits all mandates just won’t work in Connecticut.”

Looney said he realizes that regionalization gets at “the core of the issue of local control that we now have to begin to reform. It will absolutely and necessarily be controversial, but it’s important to begin the discussion.”

There are currently 43 school districts in Connecticut that enroll fewer than 1,000 students, but almost all of them already have regionalized their middle or high schools or both, and 22 districts have only a part-time superintendent.

And further regionalization may not save much in many cases. A 2013 study by the state Department of Education found that higher per-student spending by small districts was “not necessarily the result of being small, but one of ability and choice.”

Rep. Susan Johnson, a Democrat from Windham and a member of the Education Committee, said she favors regionalization efforts for her district, where there is a high concentration of Hispanic children.

Sen. Doug McCrory and Rep. Bobby Sanchez, co-chairmen of the Education Committee
Sen. Doug McCrory and Rep. Bobby Sanchez, co-chairmen of the Education Committee Kathleen Megan / CT Mirror

“We want to make sure the whole system is integrated,” Johnson said. “I mean Brown vs. Board of Education still exists and we still have inequities in our educational system here in Connecticut.”

Rep. Bobby Sanchez, co-chairman of the Education Committee and a Democrat from New Britain, said he needs to talk to Looney about the bill and study it further before taking a  position.

“I’m going to leave everything on the table at this point because I’m a true believer in discussion,” Sanchez said.

Sen. Doug McCrory, the other co-chairman of the Education Committee and a Democrat from Hartford, said he also needed to read the regionalization bills closely. “I’m prepared to listen to what anyone has to say,” McCrory said. “I’m open-minded about ideas.”

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Kathleen Megan wrote for more than three decades for the Hartford Courant, covering education in recent years and winning many regional and national awards. She is now covering education and child welfare issues for the Mirror.

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  1. Ok really stupid question but here I go … What is the projected cost savings of doing what Sen. Looney suggestions at the volume of students per school that he suggests?

    I assume (like all business people do) that he is basing his newly proposed bill on actual data. If so does anyone know where that data is, I would like to analyze it.

    Almost every “fact” Sen Looney has used when discussing the business climate in Connecticut is based on a misleading E&Y tax report that does not properly account for total cost of doing business in Connecticut, so I want to make sure he is not exaggerating the cost savings. Thanks in advance.

  2. Progressive Democrats have been in favor of regionalized school districts. Their goal was for urban students in poor performing schools to have access to better schools in the suburbs. In the 70’s they tried bussing which was a dismal failure. Governor Weicker proposed to abolish local boards of education in favor of 6 large regional school districts. I don’t believe it ever got out of committee.

    Progressives had to come up with another plan which they did. It was to make it fiscally impossible for local school systems to sustain themselves. The first plan was to institute the Minimum Budget Requirement which simply states once a school budget increases it can never decrease. This guarantees local property taxes will always increase and never decrease. Over time it would force
    suburban towns into regionalization. Senator Looney’s proposal accomplishes the progressive’s goal.

    1. If money could produce high performing schools then CT would stand high. But if parents are a major influence then it becomes more complicated. Especially for single parent families living at or below poverty levels. And where high school degrees have limited value in a world where college is the “new high school”. Sad but true.

      So lets take comfort that CT has among the nations’ highest paid school teachers living the good life in our towns and river valleys. That’s what important. For student achievement that’s another story for another day.

    2. Even in Hartford they can’t full use magnet schools because of the racial quota required by the courts. So seats sit empty at good schools because there aren’t enough non minority kids. Will a regional district of say Avon and Hartford be forced to send non white kids from Avon to inner city magnet schools.

  3. The underlying assumption of the proposers of this legislation is that money equalizes educational outcomes – regardless of the level of participation of the parents or the degree to which educational achievement is a core community value.

    If we go down this path of eliminating local/parental input in our schools – it must be accompanied with a voucher option giving parents full credit of the cost per pupil in the district to spend on charter/parochial/private schools.

  4. Looney is very big on telling others how to “save” money while doing nothing about the state’s own overspending and indebtedness problem. From a 2014 American Enterprise Report, Connecticut State employees value of wages, benefits and pensions was 42% higher than private sector employees, with the highest variance between public sector and private sector employees in the country.

    See page 67.

  5. Forcing towns to regionalize school districts strikes me as interfering with the autonomy and self-determination of local towns to organize and manage themselves in accordance with their residents’ wishes. Some school districts have already regionalized for economic reasons but they did it without a state mandate. That said, virtually all districts are the beneficiaries of cost-sharing grants, state bonding, payment of teacher retirements, and other state goodies and for better or for worse are subject to state mandates that come with this funding. We apparently have a built-in dependency on state dollars to towns that we can’t afford anymore.

    This strikes me as having more to do about budget balancing than it does education of students.
    Legislators are not going to ignore aid to cities and towns as it tries to balance its budget. I wish these same legislators worked as hard on affordable state employee salaries and benefits which are clearly the biggest driver in the budget.

  6. Fairfield County’s Gold Coast towns won’t have anything to do with cohabiting with “diversity” towns like Norwalk where most students are not native English speakers.. So consolidation proposals mostly affect our other 169 towns and cities. Where’s there’s great promise for reducing costs of $200/250k Superintendents and their costly staffs.

    CT has long been recognized as an inherently costly State to do business and within which to live courtesy of our 169 towns for a small 3.6 million population. So on paper consolidating similar school districts makes solid economic sense outside the Gold Coast.

    But as they say throughout CT “lots of luck” here. CT’s public municipal Unions have a major vested interested in keeping things just as they are. Despite the Exodus they’re will be enough taxpayers to fund their handsome salaries in our many small towns throughout CT. It’s a good life. Save for hardpressed taxpayers joining the Exodus.

    At day’s end this proposal is going nowhere because it will have commanding public Union opposition.

  7. original article said Branford would merge with New Haven indicating this is just a money grab by the Democrats to get the well run towns to pay for the badly run inner city schools.

  8. If you substitute “municipalities” for “schools,” then the proposal may begin to make a little more sense. For example, towns already share Hazmat resources. Police and fire dispatch systems are starting to cross town lines.

    Even in education, some districts have an expertise that neighboring towns can use. Norwalk, for example, is said to have a well regarded Japanese-language program that students from districts might use. With vocational training experiencing a revival, why can’t such programs be consolidated to provide the best training for all students in a region.How about regionalizing administrative services like purchasing.

  9. This is ridiculous. Fix the root cause which is the fact the state has been poorly managed for years and basically chased away large tax payers (i.e. GE) due to adverse business policies. And why would you mess with school systems that continue to outperform others i.e – Wilton, Westport? This sounds alike another stellar Democratic progressive policy to create so called fairness or equity across school districts. Just like individuals have responsibility to support or take care of themselves so should each town.

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